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Open Access Debates (2): A critique of the elitist aspects of Gold Open Access specifically

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
19th December 2012


Excerpted from a critique by Martin Weller:

“The favoured route is that of Gold OA, under which authors pay publishers to have open access articles published, usually through research funds. This is good in that it means these research papers will be openly available to all, but bad from a digital scholarship perspective. And here’s why:

1) Ironically, openness may lead to elitism. If you need to pay to publish, then, particularly in cash-strapped times, it becomes something of a luxury. New researchers, or smaller universities won’t have these funds available. Many publishers have put in waivers for new researchers (PLoS are excellent at this), but there’s no guarantee of these, and after all, the commercial publishers are concerned with maximising profits. If there are enough paying customers around then it’s not in their interest to give out too many freebies. And it also means richer universities can flood journals with articles. Similarly those with research grants can publish, as this is where the funding will come from, and those without can’t. This will increase competition in an already ludicrously competitive research funding regime. You’re either in the boat or out of it will be the outcome. The Scholarly Kitchen blog has a good piece on OA increasing the so-called Matthew Effect. It would indeed be a strange irony if those of us who have been calling for open access because of a belief in wider access and a more democratic knowledge society end up creating a self-perpetuating elite.

2) It will create additional cost. Once the cost is shifted to research funders, then the author doesn’t really care about the price. There is no strong incentive to keep costs down or find alternative funding mechanisms. This is great news for publishers who must be rubbing their hands with glee. It is not only a licence to carry on as they were, but they have successfully fended off the threat of free publication and dissemination that the internet offers. Music industry moguls must be looking on with envy. The cost for publication is shifted to taxpayers (who ultimately fund research) or students (if it comes out of university money). The profits and benefits stay with the publishers. It takes some strained squinting to view this as a victory.

Steven Harnad argues again for Green OA, claiming that

“Publishers– whose primary concern is not with maximizing research usage and progress but with protecting their current revenue streams and modus operandi –are waiting for funders or institutions to pledge the money to pay Gold OA publishing fees. But research funds are scarce and institutional funds are heavily committed to journal subscriptions today. There is no extra money to pay for Gold OA fees”

3) It doesn’t promote change – in my book I also talked about how a digital, networked and open approach could change what we perceive as research, and that much of our interpretation of research was dictated by the output forms we have. So, for instance we could see smaller granularity of outputs, post review, different media formats, all beginning to change our concept of what research means. But Gold OA that reinforces the power of commercial publishers, simply maintains a status quo, and keeps the peer-reviewed 5000 word article as the primary focus of research that must be attained.

I’ve heard Stephen Downes say that as soon as any form of commercial enterprise touches education it ruins it (or words to that effect). I wouldn’t go that far, I think for instance that commercial companies often make a better job of software and technology than universities, but academic publishing is such an odd business that maybe it doesn’t make sense as a commercial enterprise. As David Wiley so nicely parodies in his trucker’s parable, there isn’t really another industry like it. Academics (paid by the taxpayer or students) provide free content, and then the same academics provide free services (editorship and peer-review) and then hand over rights and ownership to a commercial company, who provide a separate set of services, and then sell back the content to the same group of academics.

I know a few people who work in commercial publishing, and they are smart, good people who genuinely care about promoting knowledge and publishing as a practice. This is not a cry for such people to be out on the streets, but rather for their skills and experience to be employed by and for universities, the research communities and the taxpayer rather than for shareholders. In this business Downes’ contamination theory seems to hold, there is simply no space in the ecosystem for profit to exist, and when it does it corrupts the whole purpose of the enterprise, which is to share and disseminate knowledge.

Gold OA is not inherently detrimental. There are plenty of non-profit publishers who operate this model and they keep costs down to a minimum and have a generous fee waiver policy. They are, after all, not concerned with making a profit, and are concerned with knowledge dissemination. Other models exist also, including subsidised university presses, centralised publishing platforms, etc. The swindle is that there is no real incentive to explore these possibilities because the standard model has been reinforced through the manner in which OA has been implemented. As Tim O’Reilly comments “If we’re going to get science policy right, it’s really important for us to study the economic benefit of open access and not just accept the arguments of incumbents”.”

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